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Progressive politics, ideas & culture

November-December 2011

Great Canadian Literary Hunt 2011: “Salt Water” by Andrew Shenkman

Andrew Shenkman

We’re posting the winners of the 2011 Great Canadian Literary Hunt all this week. Read the other finalists here and follow or friend us to stay up to date on 2012’s contest!
Pictures of Sam. Illustration by Ben Clarkson.

Pictures of Sam. Illustration by Ben Clarkson.


The power went out. The television emitted an electric squelch before the picture vanished into darkness. In that moment Sam saw his reflection seated neat to his sister in the TV glass. Their image was bathed in the blackness of the blank screen, obscuring their features and the fine details of the room around them. She wasn’t more than a head shorter than him these days. Sam ran his tongue along the outline of his missing tooth and rolled his neck back until he was facing the ceiling. He could hear the sound of light rain outside. Clara broke the silence,

“Maybe an electric converter exploded.”

“That sounds about right. Must be pouring somewhere.”

Sam turned to look at her, reaching out and mussing her hair. Between his fingers and her ruffled bangs he could see that static expression on her face, and then suddenly the power was back on. The TV sputtered back to life in the middle of a commercial break. Clara emitted a “phew” with so much enunciation Sam could see the speech bubble above her head. Sam smiled and then relaxed his mouth without looking away from her.

“Have you seen any movies lately? That you liked?”

“No,” Clara’s responded curtly but her eyes were soon staring actively up at the ceiling. “Yeah I did. I saw one with Ola.”

“What was it called?”

“He’s wearing a different tie.”


“The man in the show. Before they left the police station he was wearing a blue tie. Now he’s wearing a brown tie.” Clara was laughing quietly and picking at her dress. “I wonder why?”

Sam ended up making some spaghetti in the kitchen while Clara sat and watched Looney Toons. He’d been back home now for about a month and a half. The whole experience was far less claustrophobic than he had imagined once, but every single bit as strange. A year ago he had put his mom’s blue clay ash tray through one of the big living room windows. The summer before that he had set fire to the garage by accident, passed out on painkillers with a cigarette in his mouth. Every room had a ghost of some kind or another hidden amongst the clutter. A game of I Spy. And yet, being home was good. A comforting oasis.

Then Sam was in the kitchen making dinner, thinking it was nice to be around Clara. She’d grown a whole lot since he last felt like himself. He stood there, lost in thought, spooning spaghetti and meat sauce onto plates like gobs of brain lobe. Clara was diagnosed with Aspergers when she was nine and Sam was eighteen. She was a little puzzle he wasn’t much good at, maybe even he had gotten worse these eight years later. And not that little anymore. She looked more like their mom than ever before, which was unsettling. Dressing like a teenage girl, too. It seemed somewhat obscene, but of course Sam didn’t know how he’d like her to dress like instead. Old overalls.

“Dinner’s ready, geek.”

“You’re a dickhead Sam… Thank you for making spaghetti. It looks nutritious.”

Flashes of attitude and humour that bubbled up occasionally from underneath Clara’s unstirring surface bewildered Sam. Difficult to decipher or reconcile or simply ignore. Whenever she made him laugh, really laugh, he’d start to get overwhelmed. She once described her mom’s friend Don as a Korean David Caruso, another time she dropped a book she was carrying and said ‘fuck a duck!’ Both times Sam had been a lot closer to laughing and then crying than laughing until he cried.

And yet, a question was still hanging in the space between them, bound and gagged. How normal are you these days? Where do you fit on that spectrum? What do people see when they take you in? Of course, that question was there for him, too. More so. Inescapable. Are you normal now?


It was along time ago. So far back Sam could hardly recall it. It was back before he got his tooth knocked out. He was having an episode and ended up driving all the way back to his mom’s house. He was drunk and hadn’t changed his clothes in a couple days. It was 1:23 a.m. and he was feeling like he was in some kind of zone. Each traffic light he hit turned yellow just as he crossed the threshold. The breeze from out the window felt like a cool hand across his face. A couple times he closed his eyes tight and let his right foot get heavy on the gas. Good energy. Tapped in. Sam listened carefully to the music snaking out of his car stereo. In his mind’s eye he could see the CD spinning furiously under the scraping gaze of the disc player’s laser. Faster and faster until it began to wobble off its axis. He passed by the spot Vera Variety used to be before it closed down some years ago and discovered a few mysterious tears crawling down his face. He felt on fire.

As he pulled into the driveway, Sam noticed the absence of his mother’s car. It was entirely possible Clara was gone, too. Maybe they’d gone up to Uncle Stephen’s cottage for the weekend. If that was the case he’d drive up there next. Sam got out of the car and went around to the back, but the door was locked. Rage built up in his jaw. He was wasting too much time. He was missing his window. He managed to track down a spare key inside a false rock by the old swing set. Another good omen. He let himself in. He was still crying.

“Clara! Clara wake up! Clara where are you? I know you’re here! Clara where the fuck are you? Come down! I need you to come out right now!” Sam didn’t wait for a response, he ran down the hallway to Clara’s room. He forced the door open so hard it probably would have concussed her had she been on her way out. It gave a sharp smack against the wall and knocked something off of her dresser. Clara was sitting upright under her sheets in the dark. Sam dragged her out by the wrist in her pajamas to the kitchen table and sat her down. They stared at each other for a long moment while he caught his breath.

Sam arranged the water pitcher, the box of salt and the pint glass in a line in between himself and his sister. It was very important that the salt went in the glass first. Sam told her so. He poured it carefully out from the box and then examined his work. Not enough, needs more. When he was satisfied he filled the rest of the glass with water up until it teetered on the brim before stirring it around with his index finger.

“You have to drink this.” She didn’t respond. Clara had wet pajama bottoms. “You have to drink this Clara. They’re poisoning you and I’m going to fix it. You have to trust me, you have to drink this.”

Still nothing.

Sam slammed his firsts down on the kitchen table, spilling more salt water. She drank. She drank glass after glass after glass until she threw up bile from her parched throat onto the floor, and then he made her drink more. Later, a nurse at the hospital would explain to their mother what salt poisoning was. She would be there for three days.

Pictures of Sam

Clara drew this one when she was visiting Sam at the CAMH facility. Clara had trouble with perspective and straight lines, but her drawings were vibrant and astonishingly true to life. This one is no different. The room around Sam is captured in perfect detail. The messy sheets on the bed, the geometric pattern of the tiled floor and two beams of dusty light shooting in from the window on the left. In the picture Sam is sitting restlessly, his weight shifted to one side. He is captured in the midst of a conversation, mouth open, palms outstretched. His mouth is puffy and the gap in his teeth is rendered in thick pencil. His tattoo sleeve is visible, peeking out under his shirt at his wrist and neck. His shoes are untied and his hair is a mess.

In another one, Sam is playing guitar barefoot and cross-legged in the backyard. His hair is buzz cut. There is a coffee mug on the ground beside him. He’s wearing his glasses and there’s an open song book in front of him. He looks heavier than the picture from CAMH. The guitar has a Black Flag sticker on its worn body, left over from long ago. Sam is smiling in this picture, his eyes downcast at the song book at his feet. Behind him looms the decrepit swing set from Clara’s youth.

There is another picture that does not live in the same stack. It is hidden elsewhere. Sam is staring out of it, across a kitchen table. He looks thin and his posture is slumped. Sam bares an empty expression and a tongue lolling out of his mouth. In it, he is shirtless and his tattoo is in full view. A zen garden. His hands are placed in front of him symmetrically. On his left and right, stacked on the table almost to the top of the page, are glasses of water. Water glass pyramids. Inside each glass is the texture of a snowstorm. No two are completely alike.

Andrew Shenkman is recent graduate of the University of Toronto at Scarborough living in Toronto. He writes stories and music for himself and others and plays in a band called Crowns for Convoy.
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